In October, I helped a war-resister friend of mine take care of some paperwork. Unable to obtain his birth certificate, he needed a friend with a US passport to attest to certain facts. As I slid my passport under the window at the US Consulate, I thought to myself, I wonder what will happen the next time I use my passport...? I was aware I was taking a slight risk. I didn't think it was a big deal. I still don't.
Two days ago, on Monday, November 23, Allan and I drove our usual route down the QEW to the Buffalo border crossing. The female border guard in the booth asked us the usual questions - where we're going, reason for our visit, how long we're planning to stay. Then she swiped our passports, and that's when things changed.
We saw her writing - a lot of writing. She asked Allan for the keys and to pop the hatchback (which was already unlocked). A group of guards descended on the car with mirrored devices used to check under the car. I was in the passenger seat. Someone tapped on the window. I turned around to see a border guard in full paramilitary get-up motioning for me to get out and come with him. Without a word of explanation, he led me across the parking area into a building. I asked, "Can you tell me what this is about?" He said, "If I knew, I would tell you. I was only instructed to bring you in."
He led me through a waiting area with numbered wickets - like at a Motor Vehicles or other kind of processing centre - and into a separate, more secure waiting area, behind a plexiglass wall, that he had to get buzzed into. He asked if there was anything in my pockets; there was not, because my cell phone was in the car. Had I been carrying anything, I would have had to surrender it to him. He told me have a seat. I sat.
So I sat there, by myself. No ID, no phone. Just sitting there by myself. At that point I was a little nervous. After a while, I saw guards escorting Allan into the outer waiting area, which I could see through the glass. We nodded and smiled to each other, and I felt a little better.
I waited in this inner waiting room for quite a while. Eventually a guard came out - a big tall guy, shaved head, reflecto glasses - and walked me to the far corner of the room. He said they were short on space and he would question me right there. He stood directly under the TV, which was blasting the whole time, and had me sit in a chair in front of him, so I had to crane my neck to see his face, and try to hear over the TV noise.
"Do you want to tell me about some of the trouble you've been in?"
That was his first question.
"I haven't been in any--"
"Do you want to tell me about some of the trouble you've caused?"
"I haven't caused--"
"Did you try to cause trouble at the US Consulate?"
"I went with a friend--"
And that's how it went. He would ask me a question, I would say three words, and he would interrupt with his next question. After a few rounds I realized he wasn't interested in what I had to say, and I just sat there while he delivered a lecture in question form.
"The US government doesn't look kindly on military deserters, or on people who help them. Did you think you were just going to waltz into a US facility and help a military deserter? You could be in a lot of trouble. You can't just break the law and think that because you're in Canada it won't matter."
"I didn't break the law--"
"You were aiding and abetting a felon, that's a federal offense."
Now, none of the war resisters in Canada are felons. They have not been charged, tried, or convicted of any offense. There are arrest warrants out for some of them, but none of them are felons.
Also, Reflecto Guard pronounced this supposed crime "aiding and abedding". Allan and I had a good chuckle about that later. "What? You've been a-bedding war resisters?"
But I wasn't chuckling just then. I was nodding, and occasionally trying to speak but being interrupted. Reflecto never mentioned the war resister's name, but he clearly had personal information about him. He asked, "This individual must have deserted right after he signed up?" I said I wouldn't know about that. He said, "Well, he was born in 1985, I was born in 1985, so I'm thinking he probably joined when he was 19 years old, and that means..." I didn't follow his logic. I just waited for him to finish and said, "You'd have to ask him about that, I don't know the details."
"Why were you helping him?"
"Because he's my friend and he needed a favour."
"He's your friend? This individual is your friend?"
"He's much younger than you."
"Who is the gentleman who are traveling with?"
I told him. He asked the same question later, and again after that. He seemed generally unsatisfied with the answer.
This went on for a while. I'm not sure how long, but well past the point of amusement. Then he said, "I'll have to get another officer to adjudicate your case. You're not going anywhere for a while."
I asked him if I could use the washroom.
He said, very roughly, "You can't leave this room."
I went back to where I had been sitting, farther away from the TV. Allan, who could see me through the glass so he knew the "interview" was finished, came over to the glass, and we mouthed a few words to each other.
Allan said the name of the war resister who I helped -- meaning, is that why we're here. I nodded yes.
"Are you under arrest?"
"Are they going to let us in?" (Meaning, to the US.)
"I don't know."
One or two exchanges later, a different guard came over and ordered Allan to move away from the glass and sit at the other end of the room.
They left me sitting in the inner waiting room for a while, and by this time I really had to use the washroom! One of the border services employees behind the computers was female, so I motioned to her and said, "I have to pee." She walked me to a washroom, waited outside until I was finished, then walked me back. I passed Allan along the way. It was nice to see each other for a moment.
Then back to the inner waiting area, for more waiting.
Eventually two men showed up. One was my old pal Reflecto. The other was an older, more senior-looking officer wearing a baseball cap. He was carrying my notebook. My notebook which had been in my backpack, in the car. I thought to myself, That's my notebook. That man is carrying my notebook. A very strange feeling.
The older man said, "Come with us." They led me through a door behind the waiting area and opened a door to what I can only describe as an interrogation room: a tiny, bare room, with a desk and three chairs. At this point my heart raced a bit.
This is it. This is the room you've seen and heard about. The little room. I have no ID, no phone, no anything. I'm alone. I'm powerless. I don't wish to sound overly dramatic, but it was unnerving.
I thought, I'm sure glad I'm wearing my white skin and my non-Muslim-sounding last name. I'd hate to be walking in here without those protective devices.
In addition, the only time I have ever sat alone with police in a room like that was the night I was raped. So I felt little triggers flashing in my brain, old triggers but real, and for a split-second I thought I might cry, or faint - not from the present situation, but from August, 1982. I breathed deeply, and it passed.
Most of my brain knew that everything would be fine. Another part knew that having done nothing wrong is no guarantee of anything.
So I sat down on one side of the table, with the more senior officer across from me and Reflecto on the side of the table. Officer Baseball Cap showed me his ID. It's amazing how when your brain is stressed, you can't process information. I saw and immediately forgot his name.
Officer Baseball Cap said, "Do you want to tell us about some of the activities you're involved with up in Canada?"
He seemed to want me to speak, so I did. I told him, very matter-of-factly, that I work with a group of people, we campaign the Canadian government, trying to persuade them to allow these men and women to stay legally in Canada.
He said, "What you do in Canada is your own business, but as a U.S. citizen, you have to be careful. You're in a gray area, and you have to watch what you do."
Here are some things he told me.
That I have to watch what I say and do, because I'm a U.S. citizen, and the U.S. government does not approve of military deserters or people who help them.
That I have to watch what I do, because I want to be able to travel to the U.S. in the future to see my family.
That I should be careful of what I say, because he could make trouble for me.
At one point, he leaned over the desk and said, "I could call the U.S. Attorney's office right now and have you arrested."
Inside, I thought, Have me arrested for what? Hello, US Attorney? I have a woman here who signed a paper attesting that she's known someone for two years, come on in and pick her up. But I didn't respond. It wasn't a question. I just nodded.
Sometimes he gave me space to speak. I said things like, "We're not some kind of shadowy, underground organization. We're very public and above-board. We meet with our Members of Parliament, we have a bill in Parliament now. We hold public events. It's very legal and open."
I told him, "I have no wish to break the law. I've never broken the law in Canada, and have no intentions of doing so. Had I known that filling out that form in the US Consulate was illegal--"
Before I could finish he said, "It's not, but something else you do might be..."
Oh man, it was everything I could do to keep myself from turning to Reflecto and rolling my eyes at him. See that, Mr Reflecto? Officer Baseball Cap has just admitted that you are full of shit.
Baseball Cap seemed to be playing good cop and bad cop all by himself. He allowed me to talk, and he nodded his head and listened, and said, "Yes, I believe you." And he also growled and threatened to arrest me or not allow me to cross the border.
I felt very calm and unafraid.
At one point, early on, Baseball Cap went off on a little political rant. "I don't know who these guys think they are. They think they can join the military and then when they don't like some policy or something, they can just get up and leave. It doesn't work that way!"
I waited for a pause, then said, very neutrally, "I have a different perspective, but you don't really want us to discuss that, do you? You're very entitled to your opinion, and I respect that--"
His face softened. "Yes, yes, and I was about to say the same to you, you are very entitled to your opinion and I respect that right. And you're right, we're not here to discuss that. We're here to discuss what you may or may not have done to help military deserters."
I also managed to get in a little political jab. When I described our "activities" in Canada, I said, "We want the Canada to accept these men and women, like during the Vietnam War - because you know, not all of those were draft dodgers. Many of those guys were deserters, too." I don't know if he got that, but at least I said it.
If he wanted information, he was going about it very badly. And clearly, in retrospect, we realize that he didn't want information and had no intention of even trying to get it. (Perhaps he's not authorized to.) He never said, for example, Do you know where [specific war resister] lives? How long have you known him? Who runs the organization? Where is it based? And so forth.
On the contrary, he seemed determined not to follow up on anything that could lead to actual information. For example, here's an exchange.
"Do you know military deserters in Canada?"
"You do? You know them?"
"Yes. Lots of people do. They live in apartments, have jobs, talk to the media."
"But you're an American. Do you know other U.S. citizens who also know military deserters?"
"Have you ever helped a military deserter?"
"I support their cause."
"Have you ever housed a military deserter or given money to one?"
"No one is living with me now."
"Who is the gentleman you are traveling with?"
See what I mean? "No one is living with me now" is not exactly a full response. But he never followed up.
Between Reflecto and Baseball Cap, I was asked a total of six times about "the gentleman" I was traveling with. They had Allan's passport, too. They can easily see that we travel together, and anything else they need. I later learned they spoke to Allan for about one minute. (He can report on that later.) I felt like saying, "If he was a war resister, would I be bringing him into the country???"
Baseball Cap said, "What about this notebook?"
I said, "It's my notebook."
"What do you use it for?"
"I take notes. I go to meetings and events, and I take notes."
"What do you use the notes for?"
"I'm a writer, sometimes I use the notes for writing and blogging, sometimes just to help me focus in a meeting."
[As an aside, I've always made it a point not to take notes on anything highly confidential about a resister's case. Anything we don't talk about by phone or email does not go in my notebook. Now I feel vindicated in my discipline.]
Baseball Cap flipped through the book and opened to a page with some numbers. He turned it towards me and said, "What are these numbers?"
I did my absolute best to suppress a smile and answered, "Those are course numbers at the University of Toronto. I'm in graduate school and those are courses I'm considering taking next term."
There are many names of war resisters in that notebook - including my friend who I helped at the consulate. But he asked no questions about that.
This went on for a while, Baseball Cap alternating between threatening - "You don't want to have any trouble when you visit your family" - and matter of fact. Several times, he said I was in a "gray area" and I'd better "watch what I do" - and I should tell other U.S. citizens in Canada to watch what they do.
Then he said, "Well, I don't want to keep you any longer than I have to, you have a long drive ahead of you." He started to slide my notebook across the table to me, then stopped. I didn't reach for it.
The two men led me back to the inner waiting area. I stood by the door, expecting someone to buzz me out, but instead someone shouted, "Sit down! You're not done yet!"
I sat. In a few minutes, the first guard, the one who had escorted me from the car, appeared. He handed me my notebook and both passports, and motioned to follow him. As he led me out to the car, he said, "I'm sorry, I didn't work on your case, so I have no information for you."
I said, "No, that's ok, I'm good."
He said, "Yeah, you're ok?" and smiled. Strange, eh?
I said, "Yes, thank you, I'm fine, have a good day."
In the car, everything had been opened and searched, of course. The whole experience took about two hours.
A first for me. Something I've now seen a bit from the inside.
We took off down the highway, and I called the Campaign.
* * * *
In case it's not crystal clear, I've done nothing illegal. Going to the US Consulate with my friend was not illegal. And my friend is not a felon.
Driving from Buffalo to New Jersey, Allan and I had ample opportunity to talk about this adventure, with each other and with some campaigners. The more we talked, the more obvious it became that this was simply harrassment and an attempt at intimidation. And why? Because of my political beliefs and the people with whom I associate. Good old USA, freedom on the march.